Free Browser: Mozilla 1.6
Do you pine for the good old days when Netscape Communicator was the free browser going? Check out Mozilla 1.6. (http://www.mozilla.org/products/mozilla1.x/download/ ) Created by Mozilla.org, the open-source project that took stewardship of the Netscape code in 1998, it offers pop-up ad blocking, tabbed browsing, zoom controls, chat, and a mess of other features you won't find in Internet Explorer. The installation file is a hefty 12MB download, and support is strictly via FAQ or info from other users; but once you try Mozilla, you'll never go back to IE.
Free E-Mail: Mozilla Thunderbird
As easy to use as Outlook Express (and in many ways better), Mozilla Thunderbird (http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird/ ) comes from the same folks who brought you the Mozilla browser. It has all the tools you'd expect, including the ability to handle multiple e-mail accounts from a single interface, create rules for funneling e-mail into folders, and color-code messages for easier sorting. Thunderbird even has a built-in spam filter, though you have to train it before it recognizes any junk. You'll have to do without niceties like an install program or live tech support, but I can put up with that.
Free Word Processor: TextShield Fusion
If I didn't know it, I'd never suspect TextShield Fusion is freeware. (http://www.simtel.net/product.php?url_fb_product_page=57673 ) This compact word processor comes with a rash of first-rate features like a spelling checker, a search-and-replace function, a hyperlink editor, and much more, all accessible with a single click. A handy internal file manager sits to the left of the edit window, letting you quickly find the documents you want. The program saves files in rich text format (RTF) or as plain text. If you load a Word document, TextShield converts it to RTF on the fly. And you can format text in a variety of ways, including some nifty 3D effects.
Free Office Suite: 602PC Suite 4.0
Who says your productivity software has to cost $400 and have the Microsoft logo on the box? Software602's PC Suite features a highly capable word processor, spreadsheet, and photo editor/organizer--and it won't cost you a dime if you're a home user. See Here (Commercial customers pay $60, and all users must register the software within 30 days to unlock all the features.) Can it compete feature for feature with Word and Excel? No, but it has the essential tools you use every day. You can even get help, if you're willing to pay for it: E-mail support costs $50 for one year; phone support is $60 per incident.
Free Virus Scanner: PC Pitstop
Is your PC infected? You might not know until it's too late, unless you make a detour to PC Pitstop. (http://www.pcpitstop.com/antivirus/AVLoad.asp ) Here you can download an applet that scans your PC and ferrets out any nasties it finds. You can run a quick check or tell the site to scan your entire system. And it's fast--the quick check scanned more than 4000 files on my PC in less than a minute. The downside: You must visit the site to run a check. While PC Pitstop doesn't provide the 24/7 protection you'd get from a true antivirus program, it's an easy way to restore your piece of mind.
Free Personal Firewall: ZoneLabs ZoneAlarm
In today's worm-infested world, protecting your PC is job number one. A firewall not only keeps hackers off your hard drive, but it can also keep any spyware that's already infected the drive from sending information back to its makers. Easy to install and use, ZoneLabs' ZoneAlarm pops up an alert whenever unauthorized software tries to sneak in through your ports or access the Net. (http://pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7228,00.asp ) ZoneLabs also offers two paid versions of the product--Plus ($40) and Pro ($50)--that include features like ad blocking and protection against more types of e-mail attachments.
Free HTML Editor: NoteTab Light 4.95
This Windows Notepad replacement and basic HTML editor for building Web pages makes it easy to create text files and simple Web pages. Fookes Software's NoteTab Light comes with a dozen libraries of HTML commands, forms, emoticons, and more that display in a window alongside your document. (http://pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7710,00.asp ) Just double-click an item to add it to your page. Unlike Windows Notepad or Wordpad, you can open multiple files and tab between them. Paid versions of the program ($10 or $20) include neat features like multilingual dictionaries, calculators that automatically convert kilometers to miles, and much more.
Free Diagnostic Tools: Belarc Advisor and #1-TuffTest-Lite
This one-two punch will come in handy the next time your PC throws a hissy fit.
Belarc Advisor (http://www.belarc.com/free_download.html ) performs a systematic audit of your PC and presents its findings in a single Web page, including hardware settings, drivers, windows updates, and software applications.
Using Windsor Technologies' #1-TuffTest-Lite is like giving your PC a physical. (http://pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7725,00.asp ) The software creates a boot diskette that tests your system's video, memory, ports, motherboard, floppies, and hard disk. The free version tests only the first 8MB of RAM and 540MB of disk space; for the full megillah, you'll need to fork out $10 for #1-TuffTest or $30 for #1-TuffTest-Pro.
Free Media Player: MusicMatch Jukebox 8.2
Everybody has their favorite free media tool; mine is MusicMatch Jukebox. (http://www.musicmatch.com/ ) The basic version does everything I need, without the nagging ads or hassles I get from other players: It converts CDs to MP3s, organizes my songs and playlists, and transfers tunes to my handheld. It even offers a free streaming radio service with 200 stations. That's music to anyone's ears.